When the Seattle Seahawks are at full strength on defense, no one in the NFL is capable of beating them. However, that doesn't appear to be the case heading into Super Bowl XLIX against the New England Patriots.
As dramatic as the Seahawks' comeback win over Green Bay was in the NFC Championship Game, it did come at a price. First, star safety Earl Thomas suffered a dislocated shoulder, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
That was followed by the sprained elbow suffered by Richard Sherman later in the game, per NFL Network's Albert Breer:
While it's hard to downplay the significance of both injuries, Sherman's stands out because of how limited he seemed immediately after it happened. He stayed on the field but was holding his left arm close to his body so it wouldn't get hit by Packers wide receivers.
Sherman has left no doubt that he will be on the field when the Super Bowl kicks off on February 1 after the Seahawks' win over Green Bay, via Alex Marvez of Fox Sports:
One question that many people were asking after the NFC title game is why the Packers didn't try to take advantage of Sherman's weakened condition.
Warren Moon did an interview on Pro Football Talk Live, via Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, laying out the reasons why Green Bay should have looked in Sherman's direction after the injury occurred:
I definitely would have went at him because one of Richard’s strength is getting his hands on receivers and being able to redirect them, and he couldn’t lift that arm up. He was able to make one tackle on one pass that they threw on a crossing route, and he was in agonizing pain from making that tackle. So I’m surprised [the Packers] didn’t go at him a little bit more, just throwing maybe a smoke route when you throw the ball to the receiver on the line of scrimmage and make Richard make a tackle or something like that.
But while the Packers will be asking themselves many questions for a long time about what caused them to lose that game, the Patriots are masters of taking advantage of any opening the opponent gives them.
Just look at New England's two playoff games so far. Since Baltimore was geared up to stop the run, limiting the Patriots to just 14 rushing yards, Tom Brady took advantage of a banged-up secondary with 367 yards and three touchdowns on 50 pass attempts.
In the AFC Championship Game against Indianapolis, the Patriots let LeGarrette Blount carry the ball 30 times for 148 yards and three touchdowns.
Seattle's defense has been vulnerable in various spots this postseason, mostly against the run. The Panthers and Packers ran for a combined 267 yards in the two games.
However, the Patriots have a weapon to throw against Sherman that no team in the NFL can match: Rob Gronkowski. The star tight end is a nightmare to game-plan for because he has the speed to line up on the outside and run by cornerbacks.
Sherman isn't the fastest cornerback in the league, but he can get away with it because of how physical he plays at the line of scrimmage, and long limbs allow him to recover more quickly than an average player.
Yet that still won't help him against Gronkowski if Bill Belichick chooses to split him out wide. Gronk has three inches and 70 pounds on Sherman, which would be hard enough to defend with two healthy arms.
One reason to expect the Patriots to test Gronkowski against Sherman, at least early in the Super Bowl, is explained perfectly by Coy Wire of FoxSports.com:
"The one thing that stands out on tape is that no matter where he lines up, the teams that disrupted him -- either at the line of scrimmage or within five yards of his release -- had the most success. Gronk is a bad man and if he gets a free run off the line, bad things happen."
There's no definitive timetable for recovery from a sprained elbow, though Sherman continuing to practice and use the arm isn't going to make it get better more quickly.
The Patriots are going to get physical with Sherman early, making him prove the arm is healthy before anything else happens. If he looks like his usual self, then Belichick and Brady tip their hats by going to other schemes with Gronk on the line or against Byron Maxwell on the right side.
Until that happens, though, it's hard to see how the Patriots aren't favorites to win the Super Bowl. Even though the Seahawks aren't likely to have five turnovers again, their offensive weapons outside of Marshawn Lynch don't present many problems for New England's defense.
Russell Wilson will be going up against a much better secondary than he's had to face so far in the playoffs. Darrelle Revis is still one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Brandon Browner knows Wilson's tendencies well from his days in Seattle.
Belichick's strategy on defense is to make you one-dimensional, whatever it is. Since he knows the Seahawks want to run the ball, he can leave Revis and Browner alone in coverage to sell out for Lynch and keep a spy on Wilson.
Even if the Patriots aren't able to move the ball against Seattle's defense like they did against Baltimore and Indianapolis, they have plenty of weapons to cause problems for Pete Carroll's team and a defense that can shut down the Seahawks.